The Mariner’s Wife: Erendis

“They (men) would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once; and women to them are but fires on the hearth – for others to tend, until they are tired of play in the evening. All things were made for their service: hills are for quarries, rivers to furnish water or to turn wheels, women for their body’s need, or if fair to adorn their table and hearth”

–          Erendis, “The Tale of Aldarion and Erendis”

 As I hope I’ve gone some way towards proving with this blog so far, Tolkien’s women – from wise Nerdanel to stubborn Miriel and wilful Aredhel – are far from the one-dimensional passive princesses they are sometimes painted as by the Professor’s detractors. To my mind, however, one of the most vibrant and fully-realised female characters in the legendarium is the protagonist of an unfinished, rather obscure story in the volume “Unfinished Tales”. As the above quote suggests, Erendis is a bitter and resentful woman, with a jaded perspective on men that would not be out of place coming from Cersei Lannister. Unlike, say, Nerdanel or Andreth, she’s not somebody I’d like to meet. Nevertheless, the story that bears her name is a fascinating and curious one, raising questions about the nature of the marital bond and about how patriarchal societies affect women that are not addressed anywhere else in Tolkien’s writings and show him to be far more aware of gender issues than many of his detractors would suggest.

Even for Tolkien fans, Erendis is probably an obscure enough figure that I can provide a brief summary of her story here without appearing overly patronising. Erendis (also known as Tar-Elestirne, or the Lady of the Star-brow) lived in Numenor during the Second Age, and married the sailor-king Tar-Aldarion. Following a lengthy and often rocky betrothal owing to Aldarion’s frequent absences at sea or in Middle-Earth, the early years of their marriage were happy – but Aldarion soon began to hear the call of the sea, and Erendis became resentful of having to share her husband with the “Lady Uinen”*. The two ended up becoming completely estranged, and Erendis took refuge in the centre of the island, far from the sea, where she brooded on Aldarion’s perceived mistreatment of her and taught their daughter Ancalime to be mistrustful towards men. Although the story is unfinished, we learn from Tolkien’s notes that he planned for both Aldarion and Erendis to realise in old age that their happiest years were those they spent together, and that Erendis was to have ultimately drowned off the coast of Numenor (whether by accident or in an act of suicide, we are never told).

Erendis’s story is fascinating in part because it is a portrait of a marriage gone bad – a bracing antidote to the star-crossed love of Beren and Luthien, or the lightning-fast courtship of Faramir and Eowyn. Here as nowhere else in his work, Tolkien explores how difficult it can be for two individuals to join their lives together. In Erendis’s jealousy of her “rival” the sea, and in her mother Nuneth’s admonition that “a woman must share her husband’s love with his work and the fire of his spirit”, we can see an echo of Tolkien’s warning to his son Michael about “the glass of beer, the pipe, the non-writing of letters, the other friend etc. etc.” that could cause strife between a man (with his life and interests outside the home) and his wife (who, in both Tolkien’s Oxford and Erendis’s Numenor, was supposed to confine herself to the domestic sphere). Like (one presumes) many a housewife of Tolkien’s day, Erendis has invested all her energy and hope of happiness into her marriage, leading her to become resentful of the other interests which take him from her.

As I mentioned in the introduction, Erendis is by no means an entirely sympathetic character, Her steadfast refusal to share her husband with the “Lady Uinen” and her refusal to even countenance the idea of sailing with him come across as petulant, and her later removal of her daughter to a life of seclusion away from all men clearly blighted Ancalime’s life. But Aldarion, too, must shoulder some of the blame: His long voyages took him away from Erendis for years at a time, making them a rather more significant imposition on his wife than a 9-5 job, or indeed the odd pint and pipe with CS Lewis at the Bird and Baby. Worse, he undertook frequent long voyages during their engagement and the early years of their marriage, in the full knowledge that Erendis (who did not come from the line of Elros) was likely to be significantly less long-lived than him. In short, he effectively ensured that the best years of his wife’s youth – not to mention her optimal years for childbearing – were spent alone (as Erendis says herself, “The years are unrelenting, and you will not bring them back with you. And mine are briefer than yours. My youth runs away: and where are my children, and where is your heir? Too long and often of late is my bed cold”).

While Aldarion’s unwillingness or inability to remain long on land is explained by Tolkien as the product of the “sea-longing” (the same thing that afflicts Legolas part-way through “The Return of the King”), his willingness throughout his engagement and marriage to indulge this yearning with little thought for his wife’s needs and wellbeing can also seem immature and selfish – something that Erendis herself clearly sees when she says that the men of Numenor  “dally in the world, childish in mind, until age finds them (…) They would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once; and women to them are but fires on the hearth – for others to tend, until they are tired of play in the evening”. Aldarion’s likening of his wife to “a nurse anxious only about the tearing of clothes and the due time of meals” also leaves a bad taste in the mouth, reminiscent as it is of so many portrayals (both historical and contemporary) of women as uptight nags with limited imagination, anxious only to keep the men from their fun. It’s true that Erendis’s all-or-nothing attitude likely doomed the marriage from the start, and that life with her can hardly have been pleasant – but that doesn’t change the fact that what she is asking for (a present husband, and a chance at a family life) is far from unreasonable.

Erendis is also the mouthpiece for some fairly pointed criticism of men’s treatment of women (and indeed of men in general( which although it’s a reflection of her bitterness at her treatment by Aldarion, is nevertheless interesting as the one place in Tolkien’s writings where the patriarchal order of things is openly questioned. Her thoughts, expressed to her daughter Ancalime (later the first ruling queen of Numenor) are worth quoting in full:

 “Men in Numenor are half-Elves (said Erendis), especially the high men; they are neither the one nor the other. The long life that they were granted deceives them, and they dally in the world, children in mind, until age finds them – and then many only forsake play out of doors for play in their houses. They turn their play into great matters and great matters into play. They would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once; and women to them are but fires on the hearth – for others to tend, until they are tired of play in the evening. All things were made for their service: hills are for quarries, rivers to furnish water or to turn wheels, trees for boards, women for their body’s need, or if fair to adorn their table and hearth; and children are to be teased when nothing else is to do – but they would as soon play with their hounds’ whelps. To all they are gracious and kind, merry as larks in the morning (if the sun shines); for they are never wrathful if they can avoid it. Men should be gay, they hold, generous as the rich, giving away what they do not need. Anger they show only when they become aware, suddenly, that there are other wills in the world beside their own. Then they will be as ruthless as the seawind if anything dare to withstand them.

 Thus it is, Ancalime, and we cannot alter it. For men fashioned Numenor: men, those heroes of old that they sing of – of their women we hear less, save that they wept when their men were slain. But if they weary of rest and the plays of peace, soon they will go back to their great play, manslaying and war. Thus it is; and we are set here among them. But we need not assent. If we love Numenor also, let us enjoy it before they ruin it. We also are daughters of the great, and we have wills and courage of our own. Therefore do not bend, Ancalime. Once bend a little, and they will bend you further until you are bowed down. Sink your roots into the rock, and face the rock, though it blow away all your leaves”.

 In the end, of course, the battle of the sexes between Aldarion and Erendis does neither of them much good – and it has a terrible effect on Ancalime their daughter, who is a definite topic for a future post here. Erendis stews for years in bitterness and dies in regret: hers is fundamentally a tragic story. However, the story’s unflinching depiction of a marriage gone horribly wrong is a challenge to the critics who would claim that Tolkien only deals in star-crossed lovers. Erendis’s plight, meanwhile, shows that while the society Tolkien created is male-dominated both structurally and demographically, the author was nevertheless not blind to the effects such a society could have on the lives of individual women.

*Named for Uinen, together with Osse one of the two Maiar of the sea.